Einarr was quite pleased with himself for spotting a fresh trail before his grandfather pointed it out to him, not many minutes up the forest path. Then they were off the beaten path, Einarr peering at the ground as they went for pellets or for the nigh-invisible shadows of hoofprints on the needle-strewn ground. At every turn he tried to find the mark before his grandfather could point it out. He managed perhaps half the time.
“Why do deer have to hide so well,” he grumbled at one point.
“Because they’re weaker than the wolf and the bear, of course. There are three choices in life, Einarr: be strong, be clever, or be dead. Best of all is to be strong and clever.”
“Yes, afi.” It was far from the first time Einarr heard those words of wisdom.
They finally caught up with the young buck where he slept high on the mountain, near a stream bed thick with berry bushes. The summer was young enough that its antlers were still velveted. That it was a buck was good: that meant their quarry was fair game. Does, he knew, were off-limits until almost the end of raiding season.
The buck raised its head while they crept into position, its ears pricked, and looked around warily. The best is to be both strong and clever, because there will always be someone better than you. It was the end of his grandfather’s saying, and even at ten Einarr understood its meaning in his bones. If Grandfather Raen had been a little stronger, or a little cleverer, Raenshold would not be lost to him and Father would not be dependent on Grimhildr’s family.
Having satisfied itself that there were no predators around, the buck lurched to its feet and stepped daintily down to the water’s edge.
“Be ready,” his grandfather whispered even as he knocked an arrow to his own bow. Einarr nodded and followed suit.
The buck looked around again, to make doubly sure he wasn’t being watched. After what felt like ages, every moment Einarr afraid they would be spotted and their quarry would flee, it lowered its nose to the stream and drank.
His grandfather drew back his bow in one smooth motion. Einarr copied the motion, as he had been taught. Not quite smoothly, though: the arrow clacked against the bowstaff and the buck raised its head in alarm.
Afi’s arrow flew true and struck the deer behind its shoulder. A moment later, as the buck tried to turn and flee, Einarr’s arrow stuck in its flank.
“Tcheh.” It was a bad shot and he knew it, but there was no time to berate himself over it. His grandfather was already running after the buck, easily as spry as Father.
Their target made it three bounds away from the stream before collapsing in a bramble of berry vines. With a shrug, Einarr drew the hunting knife at his belt and began cutting a path through to the deer inside.
There was something wrong in the air, Einarr thought, but his ten-year-old self did not have the experience to recognize it. At this moment, dressing the deer to carry it back to amma occupied his full attention. When afi threw their prize over his shoulders, Einarr picked up a pair of the berry-laden vines he had just cut. Even if amma didn’t use any with the venison, there would be plenty for dessert and breakfast the next day.
They cut sideways across the mountain towards the main path, and reached it in the middle of a fair-sized meadow. The view over the island below took Einarr’s breath away, the forest and fields spreading out and blending into the sea beyond almost seamlessly. The sea, on which a pair of longships loomed entirely too close to their freehold. Smoke rose from the roof of his grandmother’s hall.
His grandfather froze in his tracks like a frightened buck, staring at his home. “Svari,” he breathed.
Einarr’s grandfather flew down the mountain path faster than any arrow, the buck forgotten across his shoulders. Einarr raced to keep up, willing his comparatively short legs to move faster than they ever had before. The freehold was under attack, and there was no-one below save his grandmother and the two thralls in the field.
Einarr ran with all the speed his young legs could muster, but even still his grandfather quickly outpaced him. Why would anyone raid a freehold like this one? A single farm on an island that was mostly covered by forest didn’t exactly scream treasure.
He could hear the raucous laughter of the raiders as soon as he reached the forest’s edge, his vine whips dropped somewhere on the mountain above. Steel clashed, and Einarr hoped it was his grandfather’s blade against the raiders’. A last gasp of fear propelled him onward even faster, when he thought such a thing should have been impossible.
He was too late. They were too late: afi knelt over amma’s lifeless form, weeping and covered in blood. Einarr could not tell how much of it was his. The Hall was a disaster: even the paving stones of the floor had been pried up in the raiders’ search for treasure.
“What… why?” Einarr managed to choke out.
His grandfather shook his head, his shoulders shaking. “Your Father is cursed, Einarr. I knew I never should have let Grimhildr marry into your line, and now look what happened.”
“This is not your fault. Nonetheless, this will be your last summer here.” He paused, staring at the face of his dead wife, for what felt like eternity. “Go to my bed. There is a small compartment under the mattress – I very much doubt the raiders will have found it. Bring me what you find inside.”
Einarr’s eyes opened. His cheeks were soaked, and all around him were bubbles filled with glowbugs. His hand was clutched tight about Sinmora’s hilt – the last thing Grimhildr’s father ever did for him. He could see the way out now.
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